The ongoing developments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh sector of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in India present a policy challenge to India. Thousands of Indian and Chinese troops face each other in an essentially unproductive border conflict in the icy heights of the Himalayas. Diplomatic and military talks have failed to end the military stand-off. India’s Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has threatened military action if the ongoing dialogue process with the Chinese fails.
The India-China peace deal concretised in the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993 (BPTA) has broken down. The violent incident at the Galwan Valley on 15 June this year led to the killing of many Indian and Chinese soldiers, who fought each other mindlessly over their alleged national interest. This calls for deep reflection. Shivshankar Menon, the former National Security Advisor to the government of India, a key player in the formulation of the BPTA and the list of Confidence Building Measures built on it, has called for resetting bilateral relations between two nuclear-armed Asian neighbours.
The 15 June clash was accompanied by a massive military build-up in the Ladakh sector at several friction points of the LAC by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, a key player in China’s border conflict with India. The developments in Ladakh carry a serious political message to India and China which cannot be ignored.
In the 1960s, the USSR, like India came into armed conflict with China over its boundary disputes. At one stage, Moscow openly threatened Beijing with nuclear strike. China refused to back down and at length Moscow backed off. Those two neighbours remained in a relationship of tense hostility for another 20 years. What changed and opened the way to cordial cooperation was a reappraisal in Moscow, under the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, of the fundamental issues in the border dispute with China. That led to a reversal of the Soviet position.
Until then, the USSR, like India, had been refusing to open comprehensive border negotiations, arguing as India still does, that the borders were already settled and accusing Beijing of aggressive expansionism. In 1986, in a speech at Vladivostok, Gorbachev made it clear that the USSR now accepted that the Chinese approach to the border dispute was appropriate and that accordingly Moscow was ready to open negotiations. Beijing’s response was prompt and positive.
The negotiations took several years but proceeded without serious impediment. Both sides put the need for settlement above the satisfaction of what had previously seemed like intractable and contradictory demands and therefore they found that a compromise was possible. The Sino-Russian treaties settled what had been the Sino-Soviet border, and with Moscow’s cooperation, three Central Asian successor states negotiated boundary agreements with Beijing, as detailed in China’s Borders: Settlements and Conflicts, selected papers by Neville Maxwell published in 2014.
In 1960, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai came to India with a package proposal for an India-China border settlement: China would accept the British-created McMahon Line in the East and in the West India must recognise Aksai Chin as part of China. Nehru rejected the proposal. Where is India’s Gorbachev today?
India’s negotiations with the Chinese on the border question has largely been left to bureaucrats. As Eminent scholar Ramsay Muir said, “Bureaucracy is like fire, invaluable as a servant, ruinous when it becomes master.”
Let us review the background to the BPTA between India and China, and thereafter examine the apparently huge trust deficit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which became clear at their much-acclaimed “informal summits” of 2018 and 2019 and multiple venues elsewhere. The discussions revealed the ideological-political gulf that separates Xi from Modi on regional and global issues, preventing them from developing a closer understanding. In sharp contrast, no such ideological-political gulf seemed to exist between the United States President Donald Trump and Modi, who often embraced each other like long-lost brothers.
Shivshankar Menon, in his book on foreign policy, Choices, published in 2016, explains the context for the origin and assumed significance of the BPTA. The Sino-Indian border remained largely unpatrolled for several years after the bitter clash of 1962. The then existing LAC was “basically the line of actual control, which existed on 7 November 1959” stated by Zhou Enlai. This line is not like the Indo-Pak Line of Control (LoC), which is an accepted international boundary delineated on a map. The LAC between India and China has never been agreed upon, nor delineated on any official map.
“It is best thought of as an idea, reflecting the territories that are still under control of each side, pending resolution of the boundary dispute,” as Ananth Krishnan wrote in The Hindu in June. It kept the peace, by and large, for over thirty years till the Galwan Valley clash rudely shattered it, accompanied as it was by a massive influx of PLA troops at several friction points of the disputed LAC in the Ladakh sector.
The LAC, for the most part, runs in the western sector with the border as perceived by China. But at its end India pegs the line north-west of the Karakoram Pass and China further south.
In 1976, the China Study Group of the Ministry of External Affairs set patrolling limits without either side agreeing on the exact border alignment. Differences of perception at many spots have led to face-offs: at Chumar, Demchok and the northern bank of the Pangong lake in the western sector, for example. Both sides agreed on the protocols of 2005 and 2013, but they were not always followed, leading to stand-offs at Pangong Tso, where India’s LAC runs at “Finger 8” and China’s at “Finger 4”. The fingers from 1 to 8 refer to mountain spurs that run from west to east on the Pangong lake’s northern bank.
The Chinese forces have erected tents in the Finger 4 area, preventing India from reaching its LAC at Finger 8 and leading to a stand-off. Despite the 1959 agreement between India and China that the LAC would run “from the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”, there is no clarity as to where exactly each side believes it exercises control.
The BPTA was the first legal agreement that recognised the LAC but it avoided mentioning the previous differing LACs of 1959, 1960 and 1962, and stuck to what existed in 1993. No other basis besides the LAC suggested itself, says Shivshankar Menon. The process of clarification of the LAC has remained stuck since 2002.
Dorothy Woodman, the noted geographer who scrutinised the maps published by India and China has noted “innumerable discrepancies” in them. She has noted that “any settlement on the Sino-Indian border involves compromise.” Such a compromise has not been forthcoming since the early 1960s. The Gorbachev experience in the USSR might have helped.
Among other things, we must examine the ideological and political gulf that separated Xi from Modi during their discussions at the “informal summits” at Wuhan in 2018 and Mamallapuram [Mahabalipuram] in 2019, and other venues. Modi never placed a report in Parliament on his discussions with Xi. (AG Noorani’s 2017 book on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh helps us place Modi’s ideological dilemma in dealing with China to resolve the border crisis and build better diplomatic relations with India’s giant neighbour.)
There is a view in India that stronger military measures need to be taken to improve its position vis-à-vis China. There are points in the LAC where India could give a “bloody nose” to China. There are other points in the LAC where China could deal similarly with India, defying the threat of escalation. A few voices suggest a territorial compromise as suggested by the Chinese on several occasions.
China shares a border with 14 countries and has resolved its border disputes with all but India. (China has settled its border disputes with a majority of its neighbours in Asia and claims to have settled its dispute with Bhutan.) India is to be blamed for its poor diplomatic record with China, especially by its refusal to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Even China’s main enemy, the United States, participated in the initial discussions. Participation would have brought India-China and Pakistan closer to each other and hopefully helped move towards resolution of their mutual border disputes, besides helping India elicit China’s plentiful development funds in place of United States military support, which is primarily directed against China and would breed India-China hostility. China has said India never had a good word for that country.
The India-China tranquillity pact was signed after the end of the Cold War. President Jiang Zemin visited India and Pakistan in 1996. In Pakistan, he declared that Kashmir was a bilateral issue. India’s nuclearisation in 1998 was justified in terms of China’s nuclear experiments, but the latter had more to do with Sino-US enmities of the time. In the early 1990s, India turned to the United States to establish the contours of world politics today.
Modi was re-elected to power in May 2019. On 5 August 2019, Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India, providing special status to J&K were scrapped. The separate constitution of J&K was also scrapped. The state was divided into two Union Territories under the direct rule of the government of India, Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh.
The trilateral border disputes between India, China and Pakistan makes Ladakh a conflict zone, though India denies it. The aggressive Home Minister of India, Amit Shah, who effected the changes in the status of J&K stated in Parliament that the disputed Aksai Chin region, now with China, would merge with India. He ignored China’s position on the issue. These Indian moves are perceived as hostile by China.
Compared to Indo-Pak tensions, the border skirmishes with China could be resolved peacefully. However, given its Islamophobia, India follows a hubristic foreign policy towards its neighbours.
India has speeded up upgradation of the all-weather Darbuk-Shiok-Daulat Beg Oldi road, which is being constructed by India. It passes through Chinese areas and is perceived as a security threat by China. The road provides access to the Tibet-Xinjiang highway and enables India to oversee the Gilgit-Baltistan region through which the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) under China’s Belt and Road Initiative passes. Other strategic agreements between the United States and India, especially the “Quad” directed at China were recently noted by Achin Vanaik.
Finally, a look at Modi’s ideological background, which impels him into hostile policies towards China.
All his life, Modi has been a functionary of the RSS or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the oldest, largest and most prominent far right group in the world today, with an estimated 60,000 branches in the country and dozens of affiliated fronts. One and a half to two million people are said to participate in the daily RSS branch meetings. The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is merely a political front—one of numerous—of this RSS. It is the RSS that decided to field Modi first as chief minister of Gujarat between 2001-14 and then as India’s prime minister from 2014 onwards. The RSS, which has normalised majoritarian Hindu nationalist violence in India, also believes that the organisation could assemble its cadres to fight much faster than the Indian Army “in a situation of war” and that it can prepare “military personnel within three days which the Army would do in 6-7 months”.
Three aspects of the originality of the RSS are, one, that it holds that as a Hindu nation India needs a religious, cultural and military renaissance. Two, unlike other similar organisations, the RSS does not aim to work against the country’s existing framework but hopes to take a long walk through them, capturing one landmark after another and three, over the decades, the RSS has become adept at a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary tactics.
The CDS must be asked to pipe down his rhetoric. India must instil confidence in China about its peaceful intentions by scrapping some of the anti-China pacts it has entered into with the United States and its friends and give a friendly signal to enable China to withdraw its military forces from Indian territory. It must begin negotiations with China on the border question in the spirit Gorbachev adopted years ago. There is no other way to settle India’s border dispute with China.
(The writer is a former senior official of the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi and a former Director-General of Police. The views are personal.)